Ann Hornaday looks at obvious and not-so-obvious contenders.
As awards season nears the final Oscar showdown, some clear front-runners have emerged.
By now, a handful of actors and filmmakers have earned so many accolades that it's all but assured their names will be ringing out tomorrow (US time), when Academy Award nominations are announced. (Glenn Close, Regina King, Alfonso Cuarón and the Star Is Born team will no doubt be setting their alarms for the pre-dawn hours.)
But spare a thought for those movies, performances and technical achievements that - due to the vagaries of the calendar, genre snobbery, poor marketing or just plain bad luck - qualify as their own brand of sure things: Those films that, though eminently deserving, are so thoroughly forgotten or overlooked they don't even qualify as snubbed.
This category seems fated to include a few shoo-ins, including Mahershala Ali for his turn playing pianist Don Shirley, and Richard E. Grant, for his amusing and poignant turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The Sams - Elliott and Rockwell, for A Star is Born and Vice - may also very likely to get their due.
But for that coveted fifth slot, let's hope the actor's branch remembers Paddington 2, and Hugh Grant's virtuosic portrayal of not just pompous actor Phoenix Buchanan, but of Hamlet, Macbeth, Hercule Poirot, a fetching nun, an extravagantly bearded chancer and, finally, a giddily convincing song-and-dance man.
Regina King is guaranteed to be nominated - and will probably win - for her ferociously powerful turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, in which she brings fearlessness and deep tenderness to her role as a steadfastly protective mother. It will also be altogether fitting to see Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone recognised for their outstanding work in the caustic court satire The Favourite, since comedies are so often bulldozed by more self-serious dramas.
But this humble kibitzer would also include Sissy Spacek, whose quietly wise, wryly funny performance opposite Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun leavened the film and elevated Redford's crafty but remote character into someone we could care about.
It's impossible to deny the shape-shifting Christian Bale engaged in to play former Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice, or Ethan Hawke's coiled, controlled portrayal of spiritual agony in First Reformed. Odds are that John David Washington will join them for his portrayal of an undercover cop in BlacKkKlansman. But how cool would it be for his dad, Denzel Washington, to join him for Equalizer 2, a movie that could have been just another slick urban thriller, but for his masterful, subtle turn as a super-competent vigilante? The same could be said for the always-game Tom Cruise in the excellent Mission: Impossible - Fallout. Action movies are unfairly dismissed when it comes to acting awards. Washington and Cruise are so good in them that we take their commitment and discipline for granted. Their peers, at least, should know better.
Glenn or Gaga? That will be the question when it comes to the best actress race. And surely Olivia Colman will be in the hunt as well, for her tetchy, needy, grief-stricken, hungry, compulsively libidinous depiction of Queen Anne in The Favourite, a sumptuous, subversively edgy period piece that's prime Oscar fodder.
The genre that the academy chronically misjudges is mainstream comedy, which in 2018 had its share of bravura turns, from the teen ensembles of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Blockers to Michelle Williams' sublime supporting work playing fake-dumb in I Feel Pretty.
As far as lead actresses go, here are two for the academy's consideration: Rachel McAdams' effervescent facial and physical performance in Game Night, which opposite consummate straight man Jason Bateman counted as one of the year's highlights, and Leslie Mann's equally superb command of expressiveness and slapstick in Blockers.
Admittedly, that movie itself was uneven. But just watch Mann try to escape a hotel room while two people are having sex and say that's not acting at its finest. Lucille Ball will want a word.
Alfonso Cuarón is no doubt jotting down the names of people he wants to thank on Oscar night, and why not? His movie, Roma, was the finest of the year, and he now qualifies as the best living filmmaker on the planet (and I'll stand on Steven Spielberg's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that).
His co-nominees will almost surely include Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) and maybe - just maybe - Spike Lee will earn his third nod for BlacKkKlansman.
All of these movies share ambition, even audacity, in their conception and execution. But the academy's directors branch should also look toward subtlety in their discernment process. In showbiz jargon, directing is often called "world-building", in the sense that a director is creating an entire universe on screen for viewers to immerse themselves with total, seamless belief.
That's exponentially more difficult when a filmmaker is creating a naturalistic, "real" world that isn't just adjacent to our lived reality, but of a piece with it.
Three directors did that in 2018, with assurance and attention to detail that deserves high praise from their colleagues: Marielle Heller reanimated 1990s New York City with texture and credibility in Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Debra Granik created similarly believable atmosphere in the off-the-grid family drama Leave No Trace.
But Chloé Zhao unquestionably merits the category's fifth slot, for bringing compassion, insight and the twin perspectives of observational documentary and epic Westerns to the The Rider, one of the most perfectly crafted films of 2018.
Most handicappers still have this race as a three-way toss-up between A Star Is Born, Roma and Green Book. And there are at least two scrappy underdogs many of us are rooting for, namely the winning coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade and Paul Schrader's chilling portrait of spiritual crisis, First Reformed. (If Bohemian Rhapsody makes the cut, the academy will have proved it needs a mass intervention, stat. Fun movie, but come on.)
So what's missing from this picture? Only a movie that, on paper, was supposed to be at the top of the list from the get-go. First Man, Damien Chazelle's spellbinding, boldly subjective portrait of astronaut Neil Armstrong - played in a taciturn but emotionally affecting performance by Ryan Gosling - is the kind of exercise in craftsmanship and feeling that used to be guaranteed lots of nominations, not to mention the added endorsement of audience popularity.
Instead, this story of the physical hardship and psychic sacrifice of heroism never attracted a large viewership. Some attribute that to a fake controversy surrounding the planting of the American flag and bad-faith accusations that the film wasn't patriotic enough; others to a botched distribution strategy. Either way, First Man deserved better.